While LGBTQ+ scenes are places of freedom and fun for much of the community, the welcome sign isn’t out for everyone. Stephanie Farnsworth examines how queer disabled people have been failed.
The LGBTQ+ world is often assumed to be one that is accepting and open, but for those inside it is a very different story. Too many LGBTQ+ events are still inaccessible and disabled (including deaf and neurodivergent) people are too often treated as though they don’t belong, as though it is not possible to be both LGBTQ+ and disabled. The result is that disabled LGBTQ+ people are either immediately shut out and isolated or that when they do attend events there is little consideration for specific needs. Given that the fundamental desire of the community is that different identities should be accepted, it is our duty to ensure that nobody is forgotten. Too many times the community is dominated by white, cis, middle class, able bodied and neurotypical men which means that it isn’t a diverse world at all. It’s just slightly less narrow than the cis straight world.
One major issue is that so many LGBTQ+ spaces and events are centred around alcohol. It is entrenched in our queer world, yet so many people can find being in such an environment quite triggering, particularly from those who are trying to manage substance abuse issues, anxiety and/or post traumatic stress disorder. LGBTQ+ bars are much needed, and nobody is saying the entire community should go teetotal, but if more events were not so geared towards drinking then more people would be able to participate. Less would be isolated and having to miss out due to fear around a night out where nailing shots is the priority. The issue at the heart of this is that historically LGBTQ+ bars have been one of the few shelters for many gender and sexually diverse people to go to for a social event. It was a place for people to finally meet others in a similar situation and (arguably most important to its culture) a place where people could find sexual or romantic partners. An LGBTQ+ cinema or library is just far less likely to be able to raise the funds needed to be able to stay open than a bar. The result is a culture where so many queer people can only publically socialise by going to bars to try to meet similar people, or to use dating sites.
The issue at the heart of this is that historically LGBTQ+ bars have been one of the few shelters for many gender and sexually diverse people to go to for a social event.
Yet even online LGBTQ+ spaces aren’t safe spaces. If disability is referenced in a profile or comes up in conversation – whether by using an online dating site such as OkCupid or an app such as Grindr – disabled people are often met with shock that they might want to date or be sexual, or they are hyper sexualised so that they are flooded with offensive and invasive messages. This is almost as common outside of online spaces. These ridiculous narrow stereotypes of what disability actually means, and the lack of understanding regarding nuances between the different identities, not only isolates them but can potentially put them in danger of abuse and/or sexual assault.
People with mental health issues are often either treated with complete suspicion or derision. Their conditions are roundly ridiculed with profiles like “sane and sorted, looking for same”. Absurd ideas exist that one who dates a disabled LGBTQ+ person will automatically become a carer for them and their apologetic white knight defence is often along the lines of “while I support you through everything, I am not ready to be somebody’s carer”. Poverty and classism also play a role; disabled LGBTQ+ people have been dismissed as potential dates for receiving social security and online dating profiles have referenced that they are proud to be employed and earning; a petty and narrow jab at those who cannot work for whatever reason.
Absurd ideas exist that one who dates a disabled LGBTQ+ person will automatically become a carer for them and their apologetic white knight defence is often along the lines of “while I support you through everything, I am not ready to be somebody’s carer”.
Those who cannot have sex (or don’t want to) are automatically punted out of the community as though sexual activity can be the only defining experience that qualifies somebody to enter a LGBTQ+ venue.
It is always true that people who experience multiple oppressions are those most at risk of prejudice and erasure and this is just as clear within the LGBTQ+ world. People of colour are rarely granted any humanity within queer spaces. Their bodies are thought of as fair game (particularly if trans). Ridiculous racist myths about genital size and performance in bed persist on a wide scale. People of colour who therefore cannot engage in certain sexual activities have been told either that they are lying or are treated as disappointments that they are not easily available for sex due to racist expectations. Their disabilities and identities are erased as a result entrenched racism and ableism in a community that prizes white bodies and identities and acts as though any interest in someone of colour should be treated with gratitude.
People of colour who therefore cannot engage in certain sexual activities have been told either that they are lying or are treated as disappointments that they are not easily available for sex due to racist expectations.
The narrow ideals of who belongs and who gets fair treatment are replicated many times over by the treatment of disabled and deaf people. As soon as somebody is known to be disabled or deaf then they are not allowed their own personal space. One man who shared his story told of the time he was on a date with a man who was deaf. They communicated that evening through notepads and texts. This was a private event that involved no more than two people and yet it quickly caught attention from other men in the LGBTQ+ venue. One stranger smirked at them while his group of friends watched on. The date did not feel as though it was between two people but rather as if they were both on display. He remarked that there were very much undertones that disabled people did not belong in an LGBTQ+ space.
There is also often absolutely no understanding of what it means to have to manage disabilities. People hold arbitrary, one dimensional ideas of what ‘disability’ actually means so that if a person does not fit into them then they are ostracised. A clear example of this is the lack of empathy, support or understanding of people who struggle to manage chronic pain. Self care for managing chronic and long term pain can manifest itself in numerous ways; from having to rush for privacy in toilets, to needing to take medication publicly to making noises or pulling certain expressions if uncomfortable, anxious, or in pain. These physical manifestations of the experience of disability are so often treated with contempt and little respect or understanding. There have also been incidents where people in pain have been told to be quiet or that they are disrupting certain events which can be humiliating for anyone with such an experience. Those who are afforded respect are usually those in positions of privilege who do not need to take the time to consider what somebody else may be experiencing.
Self care for managing chronic and long term pain can manifest itself in numerous ways, from having to rush for privacy in toilets, to needing to take medication publicly to making noises or pulling certain expressions if in pain. These are so often treated with contempt and little respect or understanding.
Organisers often do little to help make events easier and safer for disabled people, as though people still cling to absurd ideas that disabled people never go out, or that being disabled is the only facet of a character that one is allowed to have and so they couldn’t possibly be trans or bisexual or gay. Websites rarely have relevant or good information available such as whether the space will be accessible, which presents practical difficulties and also shows how accessibility is not considered at a fundamental level. Disabled people get the impression that they aren’t welcome. It is common that spaces won’t be well lit, have accessible stages, offer relaxed performances, have information in braille and/or large print, offer lip speaking, surtitling, subtitles, captioning and/or sign language interpreting. Food intolerances are also regularly disregarded so that those who live with stomach or intestinal conditions either have to risk being incredibly unwell to eat the food set out or go hungry for an event which could potentially last all day. Furthermore, organisers tend to act as though they have gone out of their way to do make a space or event accessible and are morally superior by doing so. Being able to provide basic information or support for disabled people is seen as an extremely generous and heroic thing to do rather than something that should always be done. These attempts at merely pacifying disabled people further highlights just how disabled people are either invisible or treated as an over fussy and demanding customer.
Being able to provide basic information or support for disabled people is seen as an extremely generous and heroic thing to do rather than something that should always be done
Organisers will often go specifically to any disabled LGBTQ+ person they know to seek out guidance on how to make their event or space more accessible, rather than conducting any research themselves and so it comes off as tokenistic and becomes a burden for any LGBTQ+ disabled person who cannot just be a guest or visitor but is made responsible by default for guidance over what needs to happen. Additionally, if disabled people point out that a lot of work needs to be done then organisers can lose interest in their commitment and act as though disabled people should be grateful for any kind of consideration in the first place. These token actions demonstrate that they were not originally intending to make spaces better for disabled people, they were hoping for cookies to be handed out and for their equality and inclusiveness credibility to go up with little effort.
Organisers who resort to this form of gas lighting and victim blaming, saying that any effort they do make is all for disabled people who should be grateful, don’t even recognise the ridiculous prejudice of which they are guilty. Disabled people are regularly scolded for a perceived lack of gratitude while in reality they are getting very little practical help. The hostility regularly displayed by organisers has resulted in invitations being withdrawn or not offered to disabled people who raise concerns, or disabled people not being able to attend an event anyway because a venue is so inaccessible or because the environment is so hostile. For many, there is understandably little trust with regards to organisers and LGBTQ+ spaces and each new encounter is treated with suspicion and fear due to how widespread ableism/disablism is within the community. The result is a split where people are almost forced to only explore and acknowledge one side of their identity. Able bodied and neurotypical people may be allowed into the LGBTQ+ world, but those with disabilities must only attend events which specifically revolve around disability.
Disabled people are regularly scolded for a perceived lack of gratitude while little is being done to support them in reality.
The type of event taking place is also a huge factor in determining how accessible or considerate organisers will be which is once again a consequence of narrow stereotypes of who disabled people are. The assumptions that disabled people won’t be interested or able to attend parties means that there is less care to make these accessible than say a cultural event during the day.
Sandra Alland, a gender/queer disabled artist and curator of disabled and Deaf arts, noted that while she was invited to attend three queer film festivals in the last year, not one of them hosted a party that was accessible. She was invited to speak about films that featured physically disabled people and yet was expected to be understanding about being unable to attend the after-parties. It was automatically assumed that she would not want to, or be able to attend a party (the latter of which was only true because organisers specifically did nothing to make the after parties accessible).
She was invited to speak about films that featured physically disabled people and yet was expected to be understanding about being unable to attend the after-parties.
Cultural events are also no less exclusive when it comes to who is accepted and who is represented. With regards to the UK lesbian and gay arts scene Alland also stated that “one only has to skim the lesbian and gay (or disability) arts scenes in the UK to know they’re both painfully adherent to white supremacist ideals of beauty.”
Even LGBTQ+ awareness campaigns focus upon slim, white, gender-conforming cisgender people. The culture of white supremacy, transphobia and ableism/disablism cannot be denied. Furthermore, disabled people are assumed to be less sophisticated and less talented, particularly when it comes to producing any work or even hosting LGBTQ+ events. Events may invite disabled people (although they are still frequently inaccessible) but their works will not be recognised and so they are constantly undervalued and scoffed. For example, dyslexic people are frequently told that they cannot produce good literature or poetry because they do not conform to our narrow standards of what is considered acceptable writing.
Even LGBTQ+ awareness campaigns focus upon slim, white, gender-conforming cisgender people. The culture of white supremacy, transphobia and ableism/disablism cannot be denied.
Neurodivergent people are also completely overlooked. There is an automatic assumption by most people that anybody you speak to or communicate with will somehow process information in exactly the same way but this is simply not true.
But for those whose neurotypicality is focused on processing information and stimuli, LGBTQ+ spaces can be incredibly intimidating. I have personally witnessed events descend into arguments because of people piling on a neuroatypical person who misunderstood or could not be understood. Some people focus on the specifics and can follow things in a very meticulous way yet any questioning is attacked as though a neuroatypical person is just bigoted for not agreeing. The results from this is that there are rarely any safe spaces for people who process information differently or don’t communicate in a way which neurotypical are used to experiencing.
Additionally, practical changes must be made as well as adjusting the way we approach disability. Giving good and accurate information about events is crucial for anybody with a disability. Some neurodivergent people, or people who have PTSD or anxiety, cannot attend events with loud music. Some disabled people may also need a break in any event too. Being accessible goes far beyond having wheelchair access into a premises (though even this fundamental is not considered often enough). Events should clearly say how long they are expected to last, whether there will be breaks, whether it will be noisy and crowded or a more relaxed setting and what the lighting and environment will be like. LGBTQ+ spaces still don’t always have gender neutral toilets either, or disabled toilets. There also needs to be made available good signage in large print as well as information made available in braille. Sign language interpreters, subtitles and surtitles must also be provided. Making small talk at the beginning of an event optional can also be hugely beneficial to anybody with autism and/or anxiety. Sensory safe zones would also help anybody with autism to be able to take a break from any strong lighting or loud noise. Often spaces won’t have a place where disabled or neurodivergent people can go just to take a break which means they will be far less likely to even come to the event in the first place rather than turn up and struggle on for the entire event.
That there is such ableism and disablism within the community disregards the very roots of prejudice against LGBTQ+ people. For centuries LGBTQ+ people were believed to be disabled in some way. Their identities were themselves viewed as disabilities and they were often treated with ableism/disablism, hence why conversion therapies and cures were so often sought. It is still not uncommon today for that still to be the case, which is why so many studies are focused upon whether experiencing a trauma can change one’s gender or sexuality as it is thought of as a mental illness which can be cured if the reasons why are discovered. There have also been some very shoddy research attempts that have tried to link being trans to being autistic.
The LGBTQ+ community shares mostly the same issues with disablism and ableism as the rest of society. However, disabled people are regularly hurt more by the hatred and exclusion from within the LGBTQ+ scene precisely because it is supposed to exist as a safe space and be there to protect people from the malevolent prejudices of society. People may disagree with the LGBTQ+ community being held to a higher standard but I do not think it is unfair to expect and demand that all spaces are safe spaces, including our own. Non-disabled LGBTQ activists cannot focus solely on their own oppressions but must recognise all of the different identities that make up this community. The issues within the LGBTQ+ community do need to be recognised and examined because it can only work as a safe space for LGBTQ+ people if it accepts all members of its community. It is the duty of all equality movements and spaces to be safe havens for those who face multiple oppressions. If only cis, white, middle class, able bodied, neurotypical men are allowed then it isn’t a space worth having.
Follow Stephanie on Twitter (@StephFarnsworth)